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Blue Origin parachutes
Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew capsule descends on the end of its parachute system during an uncrewed test flight in April 2015. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos predicts there’ll be a problem with a parachute the next time his Blue Origin venture flies its uncrewed New Shepard spaceship. He’ll make sure of it.

Flying with a bad parachute is part of Blue Origin’s plan to test the suborbital craft under stressful conditions, in preparation for flying passengers to the edge of outer space in as little as two years.

In today’s email update, Bezos said he and the rest of the team were “finishing our mission planning for another flight of New Shepard, which will be our fourth flight with this vehicle.”

The New Shepard propulsion module and crew capsule went through successful flights to space and vertical landings in November, January and April at Blue Origin’s West Texas launch facility. During last month’s test outing, the propulsion module didn’t relight its hydrogen-powered BE-3 rocket engine until just seconds before what would have been a crash landing. New Shepard made a soft touchdown nevertheless.

“On this next mission, we’ll execute additional maneuvers on both the crew capsule and the booster to increase our vehicle characterization and modeling accuracy,” Bezos wrote.

“We also plan to stress the crew capsule by landing with an intentionally failed parachute, demonstrating our ability to safely handle that failure scenario,” he continued. “It promises to be an exciting demonstration.”

The demonstration won’t necessarily end in a crash. Three independent parachutes are used to ease the crew capsule’s descent. If one fails, the other two should still hold up. There’s also a retro-thrust system that’s designed to cushion the landing.

Bezos didn’t say when the next test flight would occur. Last time, he provided a day’s advance notice via Twitter.

In the past, Bezos has acknowledged that he fully expects to lose some of the hardware that’s been built at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash. More crew capsules and propulsion modules are being built to boost Blue Origin’s fleet.

If the tests proceed as Bezos hopes, the uncrewed tests will progress next year to flights with test pilots – or more precisely, test passengers, since the spacecraft is flown autonomously. That would set the stage for passengers, including tourists as well as researchers, to fly beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) boundary of outer space and experience weightlessness in 2018.

Blue Origin is already flying scientific payloads during the uncrewed testing phase.

Preburner test facility
Blue Origin’s preburner test facility stands ready for use. (Credit: Blue Origin)

In today’s email, Bezos also provided an update on the construction of test facilities for Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 engine, which is fueled by natural gas. He said the first of two concrete chambers designed for testing the engine’s preburner start and ignition sequence was commissioned last week.

“One of the many benefits of a privately funded engine development is that we can make and implement decisions quickly,” Bezos wrote. “We made the decision to build these two new test cells as a team in a 10-minute discussion.  Less than three weeks later we were pouring concrete and now we have an operating pressure-fed test cell seven months later.”

The BE-4 is being developed for use in Blue Origin’s orbital launch vehicle, which is only in the early stages of design, as well as in United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket. By early next year, ULA is expected to decide whether to stick with the BE-4 or go with its Plan B, which involves buying Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine.

The Vulcan is a big part of ULA’s plan to comply with federal legislation and discontinue the use of Russian-made RD-180 engines. Bezos touted Blue Origin’s Plan A as the best way to proceed.

“Private funding and rapid decision making are two of the reasons why the BE-4 is the fastest path to eliminate U.S. dependence on the Russian-made RD-180,” he wrote.

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